Natalie Morales: ‘Plan B’

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Actor and director Natalie Morales. Photo by Catie Luffoon.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actor and director Natalie Morales, whose feature directorial debut is “Plan B” on Hulu. The film follows two best friends on a road trip across South Dakota as they try to procure emergency contraception, aka Plan B. Morales tells The Treatment the film explores the experience of these two friends as children of immigrants and the tensions between forging their own identity as young adults and staying connected to their families. Morales says, as a daughter of Cuban immigrants, watching a lot of American TV and films as a child helped her as an actress earlier in her career to understand what Hollywood was looking for, but she also later came to the realization that she had been code-switching to be accepted in the film industry. And Morales says while the film can teeter on the edge of horror, that’s because it can be scary to be a woman in the world.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. I am thrilled to have on the show actor turned director Natalie Morales, who is making her feature directorial debut with the film "Plan B." What's so much fun about the movie is that it's really in a lot of ways about people coming to recognize who and what they are. 

Natalie Morales: For sure. It's an R-rated teen comedy, like the ones we grew up with, and that was very exciting for me to make. I think that's sort of inherent to the teen comedy. It's a point in your life where you're trying to figure out who you are and also maybe if who you said you are is still who you are, and if who your parents want you to be is who you are. 

KCRW: Well, I think what's interesting about it, too, is the fact that these young women, who are the stars of the movie, think they know themselves as well, and they have to realize that they don't know themselves as well as they think they do.

Morales: Right. They're two best friends, and one of the sources of pride for me in this movie is that the two actresses Kuhoo Verma and Victoria Moroles have such incredible chemistry, which is something I knew we needed, and I knew the movie would fall flat if we didn't have that. And within friendships, there's often things you don't know about each other, even if you're super close, and that's also a really interesting thing to explore.

KCRW: I think what's so fun about the movie is it really takes its time setting up who these young women are, that they're literally different people when they leave the house.

Morales; There's a lot of fun stuff that me and my DP, Sandra, Valde-Hansen did that enhanced that, that I wanted to establish throughout the movie. It's really subtle, but there's a lot of shifts in the way it's shot. For example, at the beginning of the movie, all of the adults are positioned taller and higher and bigger than them, and that starts to shift throughout the movie as they grow. As they start taking up more space in their world, the colors start to become more saturated, and not as drab the more they grow into their own. And that was a subtle and subliminal way to make you feel what they're feeling. I mean, in a lot of ways, the movie and the way it's shot and told and cut is so that you feel like you're feeling it from their perspective. You're sort of the third friend there. 

KCRW: There's a scene where Sunny's walking to the bus stop, and we can see that once she's outside of the house, she doesn't want anyone to get too close to her whereas Lupe basically wants to get right up in everybody's face.

Morales: It's an interesting way to get to meet these characters. The scene that you're talking about where Sunny is walking to the bus, it's a really short thing, but there's so much about women in general, and not only women, but children of immigrants and stricter religious parents that has to do with how you see the world and how you see boys in the world and how people feel about you and your body and your space that you're taking up. 

KCRW: It's almost the way that as an actor, you're constantly being judged and how you deal with that judgment, and make it work to your advantage or the way people think they're reading you and not knowing you: that idea of basically assessing somebody based on the way they look and act and how wrong that is.

Morales: I love the idea that there's more under the surface because that's the case for everybody. There really are no small parts in this movie at all; even the tiny minor characters who have one or two lines, I wanted to make sure that the things that they were talking about, the things that they cared about, the things that they said were not expected and were different, and they had other qualities about them that you may not have expected in a teen movie. That makes me really happy as a viewer and as the director and as an actor because I love the idea of small little roles having meat to them because that's what I feel it's like in the real world.

KCRW: Seeing the way these two young women deal with the fact that these judgments are being made about them, and people don't quite know what to make of them is a really big part of the story, isn't it?

Morales: Yeah, I mean, I think that's something we all deal with, right? Especially as a teenager, you're figuring out what your place is in the world. My whole family are Cuban refugees, and I was the first person born in the United States, and so they couldn't really tell you what to expect or what to be like, or how to get by in this new world because they were figuring it out on their own, and their perspective was completely different. I think that's something that a lot of children of immigrants share.

For me, my point of view into the world and the way that I was like: Okay, how do I figure this out was TV and movies. And that made me get a lot of things wrong and a lot of things right. In my personal career, I think there was a lot of code switching that I just inherently did in order to get a job or to get accepted by this comedy world or Hollywood world that I knew I had to say things or deliver jokes or understand a certain type of comedy that wasn't inherent to where I came from. But because I watched so much TV, I knew what they wanted. And I was able to do it through the code switching that happens naturally, in order to get by in the world. 

That wasn't really something I realized I was doing until somewhere around last year where I was like, Hmm, I really have to take a look at how much white-washing I've done to myself because I felt like that's what I needed to be successful. I couldn't be too Latina or too different or too whatever, and the more I've grown in my career, and the more I've grown in my life, the more I've allowed myself to not care about those things. And the more I've realized that actually, being who you are is the coolest thing you can be.  And I'm happy that I get to be sometimes in the role of director now where I can give people shots that don't necessarily depend on them doing the thing that's expected, but them doing something fresh and new and something that speaks to them and their culture.

Lupe (Victoria Moroles) and Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) in "Plan B." Photo by Brett Roedel/Hulu.

KCRW: One of the things I think really gives us some texture in the film is what their homes are like. And even though there's some abrasion for Lupe at home, it's a place that teems with life and this idea that she knows where she stands even though she may not be happy with her status there. The same thing for Sunny, and as soon as they step outside, there's like a moment of quiet around both of them.

Morales: It's interesting being a woman in the world because the minute you walk out of your safe home, hopefully, safe, there's all sorts of things that can happen. It can be terrifying; it can be funny; it can be weird; it can be sad. It can be raunchy; it can be sexy; you never know what to expect. And that's an inherent part of being a woman. And so I really wanted to infuse that feeling, although it wasn't hard, because it just exists for me and for us. 

I think what you're talking about is that moment where, especially as a teenager, you leave your parents’ house, and you are a certain way for them, or you rebel against the way they want you to be, but you have a certain place in that household. And then when you're at this age, where you finally get to be alone: who are you then and what do you want, then? And are you happy then when you're by yourself? 

KCRW: There's so much music in the movie, too, but it's a lot of period music. 

Morales: I love music. I love the soundtrack, and I love the score in this, and it was something that I worked on with so much passion and love. There's a few subtle things that I was doing, which is that anytime that the teenagers have control over the music, which is at the party, they're listening to stuff that would they would listen to, but the rest of the movie, you know, the non-diegetic music that's in the movie that the audience is hearing is from a big swath of music from the 70s and 90s. For example, in the car, there's only  South Dakota radio, and there are only so many stations, and that's what they're listening to.  

Not only do I find the music to be very good and stylistically, I was going for something that was a little bit bolder, but I think subliminally for me, what it creates is this idea, this evergreen-ness that women have been living like this forever, and it's not just a now thing. It's an always thing. 

KCRW: It's the stuff that they pick for themselves versus the stuff that's being played around them, so again, I think there's a lot of texture about the way the world is around them and how they live in it and how they deport themselves in it.

Morales: There's an oppression to being forgotten. It's this pressure and this feeling of: this is just the world you live in, and it's big, but there's nowhere for you to go and there's nowhere for you to feel accepted. And thank God you have your best friend, and that's kind of the feeling I wanted to create, at least in the beginning, because there's a powerlessness to feeling that way until you take that power into your own hands and make space for yourself in this world and allow yourself to take up more space in this world instead of the space oppressing you. Especially in a place like South Dakota which is where this movie takes place, it is so much land and it is so much people, but if you're the only two brown girls in your entire school and your entire vicinity, you're just lost in this world of white. 

This movie was going to be made in March of 2020, and we got shut down like everything else. And originally the landscape of the movie was literally all snow, so it was going to be these two brown girls in a sea of white. But then because of COVID, we had to shift everything and we ended up making it in the fall of 2020 which, of course, there's no snow and then everything is brown. So then it was about shifting how we got the same feeling across without everything literally being covered in white the way that they are in the frames at the beginning of the movie. How they take up more space and the lenses we use and the way we saturated them is different at the beginning than it is at the end because we really did want to feel that hometown oppression.

KCRW: Tell the audience what your movie’s about.

Morales: Well, it's about two girls who live in America's Heartland in South Dakota and they're two teenagers, and they're best friends, and they're kind of dorky and they have their first high school party. One of them loses their virginity and the next morning, pees out the condom, and so they go to a pharmacy to get the Plan B pill. There are many states in the United States, South Dakota being one of them, that have a conscience clause, which means that any pharmacist can deny contraception if it goes against their beliefs. And so in this small town, it goes against everybody's beliefs, so they are denied that, so they have to get to the one Planned Parenthood that's opened across the state. 

They decide to take a road trip to go get the Plan B pill. And I know this sounds very dramatic, but it's actually an R-rated teen comedy, like the teen comedies we all grew up with, except, instead of getting alcohol for the party or getting the girl or getting your dad's car back in time, it's getting basic health care. But all the rest of the stuff that you might expect to happen in these fun, crazy teen quest movies still happens.

KCRW: It's that moment in teenhood, where everything is slightly terrifying. It has that feel of a John Hughes movie where everything is scary, every new person you meet, especially when you're away from home, and you're away from your hometown, feels like it's the portent of a horror movie.

Morales: Like I was saying earlier, I think that's what it's like being a woman in the world. There's threats everywhere. I read somewhere that if a man wants to know what it's like being a woman in the world, they should take all the money that they have out of the bank, and just walk around with it. I thought that was so interesting, except, if someone stole all your money, they don't cause you as much emotional pain as all the things that they can take away from a woman. 

So yes, it is all scary, in some sense. But it's also something that I felt a lot as a teenager, and something that I wanted to infuse into this movie. There comes a time where you just kind of force yourself to be an adult because that's what you think you need to do, and you do uncomfortable things or things you're not ready for because you don't want to be left behind, and you don't want to feel like a little kid anymore, and those things can be scary. You're kind of pushing yourself out of the nest in this way, and I find that to be such a sad but true thing about being a teenager. 

KCRW: You've got such a great cast. I mean, there's Jacob Vargas, who I never see enough of, and Jay Chandrasekhar and Rachel Dratch.  That chemistry you're talking about creating with your two leads also exists for all the actors who come in.

Morales: Ed Patterson and Moses Storm and Euriamis Losada are some other of the big fun guest stars in this movie that the girls meet. They all have these standout scenes that are these amazing moments that are improvised a lot and also just nailing what we had for the character and all of us in the background, trying not to laugh and mess up the scene. As an actor and a director, it was so fun to work with actors that are so talented, and I could just let them run free.

 KCRW: The movie does such a great job reminding us the worst thing you could do as a teen is to disappoint somebody who means something to you, both your parents and your best friend.

Morales: Not only as a teen. It's the worst thing you can do I feel as an adult and through the rest of your life. I really did make this movie for teenagers, for sure, but I also made it for people who used to be teenagers and needed this movie and I also made it for parents because I think it's a common thing that we kind of never let go of. If there is any message in this movie, it's that you deserve love and you deserve acceptance, no matter if you make mistakes or who you are. And I wanted to give people an example of what a best friend should look like, especially young teenagers, and what a love interest should look like and be like and sound like and what parents could be like. 

KCRW: I wanted to ask how much time you spent developing the script, and if you had a chance to rehearse the actors at all because each moment has this incredible vivid feel to it. I'm just thinking about the scene where they go to the convenience store, and they're harassed going in, and then they're harassed coming out, and then a clerk comes out, and I'm trying to talk about this without giving too much away. That sequence is to me kind of the crux of the movie because it starts one way and each minute is kind of a surprise. 

Morales: That scene was not rehearsed. We did rehearse some of the stuff with the two leads. Part of what happened with COVID is that we lost one of our leads, because she had another job, so we had to recast within three weeks of making the movie and also then completely rewrite the character because it was a totally different person. It worked out so well because these two actors and those two characters really work well with each other. Then we had limited time to rehearse and also COVID protocols while we were shooting were difficult. But we did rehearse some. That was important to me, as a director, especially getting their friendship really, really, really down, so that was never never, not believable. 

That scene that you're talking about, that's Edi Patterson and Josh Ruben and Bobby Tisdale, who are the guest stars in those scenes, and they're just pros. They're just so good. That particular scene was crazy. We shot that over, I think, two days, and it kept raining and not raining. We had to stop and start and stop and start, and it was kind of a mess, and they just rolled with it and were incredible. I got very lucky.



Rebecca Mooney